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The Packers' Goal-To-Go Offense Was Too Cute To Work

Photo: Dylan Buell (Getty)

Packers fans will be specifically frustrated by two themes from Thursday night’s narrow home loss to the Eagles: confusion over the pass interference review process, and Green Bay’s failure to convert on two late drives deep in the red zone, in a seven-point game. No one seems to know what the hell’s going on with pass interference reviews, and anyway it’s mostly beyond the control of players and coaches. What head coach Matt LaFleur and the Packers should be focused on Friday is the humiliation of having added their names to the ignominious list of goofs who forgot that running the ball is an option in short-yardage situations.

The details are plenty frustrating. Down 34-27 early in the fourth quarter, the Packers ripped off a long drive and found themselves at the one-yard line, with four downs to work with and plenty of time—more than half the quarter—still left on the clock. Four plays later, they’d turned the ball over on downs after four incomplete passes. Hope was not yet lost: Green Bay took possession again with five minutes left on the clock and the score unchanged, and pieced together another long drive, this time setting up a second-and-goal from the 3. Moments later, the Eagles had possession of the ball, following a tip-drill interception on a rub route. In the game, the Packers scored just three touchdowns on seven trips inside the red zone; in 10 total plays from within 10 yards of the end zone, the Packers called just one running play; and in six plays from inside the five-yard line, the Packers failed to connect on six passing plays.

There’s context to consider, sure. Jamaal Williams was knocked out on Green Bay’s first offensive snap of the game. LaFleur said the Packers only dressed two tailbacks, and the loss of his starter early “certainly played a role” in changing his overall plans to pound the ball when it’s smartest to do so. It’s also true that Green Bay’s running game largely sucked ass Thursday night—in 15 called run plays, the Packers gained 31 total yards, and Aaron Rodgers out-gained the entire rest of Green Bay’s rushing attack on five scrambles. With Rodgers dealing in the second half—he finished the game with 422 yards passing and another 46 on the ground—it’s completely understandable that the Packers would lean into their passing attack and away from the run.

It’s also worth pointing out, though, that the two late goal-line chances that ultimately doomed the Packers lacked the services of wideout Davante Adams, Rodgers’s top target and the guy who led the NFL in red-zone touchdowns last season. Adams left the game after a 13-yard completion on the first of those failed fourth-quarter drives, suffering from what has since been identified as turf toe. That loss would seem to accentuate the need to diversify the red zone offense, in order to do with playcalling what might otherwise normally be accomplished by Adams’s playmaking knack. While passing is generally more efficient than rushing, one of the biggest exceptions is in short-yardage situations, and in all situations inside the five-yard line, where there’s less space for an offense to exploit:

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More important, the Packers had not wholly abandoned the running game in the second half. They sprinkled in just six rushing plays after halftime, but the play that set them up with second-and-goal at the 3 on their final drive was a positive carry by Aaron Jones. It seems LaFleur contracted Freddie Kitchens Brain as his team got closer to the end zone, opting for nifty play-calling when just one good push or dive would’ve tied the game. There’s a hint of smarty-pants myopia in LaFleur’s answer after he was asked why he didn’t run the ball on the failed sequence from the 1. Per The Athletic:

“That’s a great question,” LaFleur said. “We got to the goal line, we liked the matchup on the outside, Jimmy Graham on the safety. That was incomplete. Second down, we tried to stay in goal-line, thinking they might think we’re running the ball. We ran the keeper. They played the keeper, credit to them. The defensive end played right up the field and he was right in Aaron’s face. Then third down, we called, there was a play with a run-pass option, and Aaron saw what he saw and he pulled the ball. The defense reacted so we had to throw it away. Then fourth down, we tried another pass. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for us.”

Every individual call seems defensible, isolated from the others. The fade to Graham came against a significant size mismatch; the play-action bootleg on second down was blown up by a great defensive read; Rodgers chose the pass option on the run-or-pass play on third-down; the fourth-down call was a spread-formation pass with lots of options for one of the best passers in football history. Zooming in on any one of them (with the possible exception of the extremely cute RPO call on third down) results in a view of a reasonable play call. The sequence as a whole, though, reveals a situation where the Packers did not call a single straight-ahead running play on four tries from the 1-yard line. They never gave themselves a chance to pick up one measly yard by just shoving their way forward.

To say that the Packers lost the game because they called six pass plays from inside the five-yard line would be an oversimplification, and also wrong. If any one of those plays had connected—if Graham had hauled in the fade, or if the ball hadn’t popped off the chest of Marquez Valdes-Scantling on Green Bay’s final offensive play, or if Philadelphia’s Craig James had been penalized for pass interference on the contact that led to Nigel Bradham’s game-sealing interception—things might’ve gone differently. The Packers might’ve scored, and they still might’ve lost. But LaFleur’s play-calling deserves plenty of scrutiny. The run game might not have been super productive Thursday night, but it’s never less productive than when you won’t give it a try.

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